I grew up in Bay D’Espoir, which I thought was pretty isolated at the time. After all, it was a two hour drive across a very poorly maintained highway to get to the nearest MacDonald’s or Tim Hortons, or to the nearest WalMart or Canadian Tire.
But it really isn’t as isolated as it seemed at the time. After all, it was a mere two hour drive to Grand Falls, and all we had to do was keep a list of things we needed until our next trip across the highway, which was every month or so.
But here in Arviat there is no highway whatsoever, which alters your perception of isolation. While the three local stores are fairly well stocked with a surprising variety of goods and we get daily flights of passengers, groceries, and mail, there are still a lot of things you can’t get locally, and sometimes tracking things down takes a little creativity and online persistence.
I talked about sealifting the last time, which is a convenient and cheap(er) way to get bulk goods such as vehicles, furniture, and non-perishable foods. But sealifting requires spending a lot of money to make it worthwhile, and since you have to plan it well in advance it’s not an option when you find there is something you need soon that you can’t buy at the Northern Store. It’s also not an option for perishable foods.
Fortunately, online shopping has come a long way. There is little or nothing that you can’t find with an internet connection and a little perseverance. This assumes, of course, that a decent internet connection is possible, which it is for me but for reasons of affordability and infrastructure it’s certainly not possible for everybody in the north.
…there is little that people in the north are forced to do without simply because it’s not available here.
Buying books, movies, and music online is not particularly new, but I have a newfound appreciation for Amazon now that I can’t drop by Chapters to browse and have a Starbucks coffee. In addition to buying books and CDs online, given the longer shipping times involved in getting things through the mail up here, I have been moving more and more towards digital entertainment – buying e-Books for my Kindle, and digital downloads of music without ever seeing a physical book or CD.
But for things that don’t have a digital alternative, things like clothes and toothpaste, there are still plenty of places to shop online. Clothing, electronics, tools, toiletries, artwork, and just about anything else you can think of are available online, and if you don’t mind waiting a couple of weeks for shipping there is little that people in the north are forced to do without simply because it’s not available here. A non-exhaustive list of things I’ve seen bought online recently, either myself or at work, includes an 18 volt cordless drill, a computer monitor, an inflatable bouncy castle, office furniture, 1500 hamburgers, some t-shirts, 2 pounds of coffee, and a couple of textbooks.
Even food is available for purchase online or by phone. Some snack items are sold by online pharmacies and even Amazon. But there are food retailers who ship to Nunavut, with freight rates often subsidized by the Nutrition North Program, subject of much recent criticism and protests reaching as far as Ottawa. There are several meat and deli shops in Winnipeg, for example, who will package fresh and frozen meat for shipment to you directly and put it on a cargo plane headed out the next day. There are also service companies who will take your grocery list, go shopping for you for virtually anything including fresh fruit and vegetables, pack it and ship it.
…the price may actually be less important than if the retailer offers free shipping to Nunavut.
Shipping costs are always something to consider. Most service companies will send items by cargo, but most online retailers, especially the large retail chains with online stores, will just ship through couriers and regular mail. This sometimes leads to comparison shopping where the price may actually be less important than if the retailer offers free shipping to Nunavut. Many online retailers will offer “free shipping*,” where the asterisk leads you to a disclaimer that certain rural locations don’t qualify. Interesting fact: if the second character in your postal code is a “0” (ours is X0C 0E0) you are officially rural.
And if all else fails with finding something online, you can always call up a friend or family member back home and get them to pick it up for you and put it in the mail. This is definitely not the most cost-efficient way to get anything, but it’s a handy last resort when there is just no other way to find that obscure brand of tea or special piece of hardware that you desperately need.
Just like sealifting, these are great options for getting things you need (and things you don’t) in the north, but just like sealifting, these options require a certain amount of disposable income and a credit card to take advantage of them. While this means that people with well-paying jobs (like me) are able to take advantage of online shopping and direct-shopping services and companies, a big portion of the local population just doesn’t have that luxury.
The views and opinions in this column are those of the author alone, and are not necessarily those of the Hamlet of Arviat, Government of Nunavut, any of its departments or agencies, or anybody else.